DISCOVERIES FROM RESEARCH AND THEORY DEVELOPMENT
Rethinking Dąbrowski’s Theory II:
It’s Not All Flat Here
Michael M. Piechowski
Unilevel disintegration, the second level in Dąbrowski’s theory, does not have a structure compar-
able to the higher levels. It also lacks direction. If so, one is bound to ask what is developmental
about it and what, in fact, is developing in level II. Two classsic studies and one of highly gifted
adults show three possible kinds of emotional development on the not-so-ﬂat plane of level II: a
personal growth from black-and-white to relativistic thinking, from no sense of self to an individual
self, and fulﬁllment of one’s talents as a productive member of society. Viewing the levels as types
of development makes clear that the ﬁrst two levels are not precursors to advanced development.
Keywords: development of self, emotional development, ethical development, gifted adults,
intellectual development, level II, relativism, theory of positive disintegration, unilevel
The goal of this article is to address a neglected area in
Dąbrowski’s theory of positive disintegration, a theory of
emotional development. By development Dąbrowski meant
personal growth much like scaling a mountain rather than the
sequential unfolding of childhood, adolescence, and adult-
hood. His theory attracted attention for two reasons: one, it
is a theory that makes sense of emotional development of
gifted children and adults and, two, it represents a masterful
effort to rescue from psychopathology the characteristics of
the gifted (overexcitabilities) and their developmental crises.
The theory addresses the inner struggles to become an authen-
tic self, struggles that also place one at odds with social reality.
Overexcitability—the descriptive component of
Dąbrowski’s theory—has become familiar, in research and
practice, as a recognizable characteristic of gifted children
and adults. Overexcitability has also become part of the deﬁni-
tion of giftedness as asynchronous development (Silverman,
1997). The theory deﬁnes ﬁve developmental levels: primary
integration (level I), unilevel disintegration (level II), sponta-
neous multilevel disintegration (level III), organized multilevel
disintegration (level IV), secondary integration (level V). The
challenge in understanding the theory lies in the fact that the
levels are not successive stages but represent different types of
development. Furthermore, level I is not the starting point of
development in Dąbrowski’s sense (Piechowski, 2014b).
The ﬁve-level ediﬁce of the theory has found little applica-
tion in gifted education despite the fact that adolescence is often
a time of deep emotional change of the positive disintegration
kind. The exception is Jackson’sworkondepressioningifted
adolescents (Jackson, 1998; Jackson & Moyle, 2008a,2008b;
Jackson, Moyle, & Piechowski, 2009; Jackson & Peterson,
2003) and Peterson’s work (Peterson, 2012,2014).
Part I presented the argument that the label primary
integration is misleading and should be discarded
(Piechowski, 2014b,2015). The argument was based on
research in child development.
LEVEL II UNTIL NOW
Level II, the so-called unilevel disintegration, has not received
much attention. Whatever happens there lacks the charisma of
the more advanced levels that are ﬁlled with intense inner
struggles and are populated by lofty moral exemplars.
Accepted 30 August 2016.
Address correspondence to Michael M. Piechowski, Institute for
Educational Advancement, 119 Ski Court, Madison, WI 53713. E-mail:
Roeper Review, 39:87–95, 2017
Copyright © The Roeper Institute
ISSN: 0278-3193 print / 1940-865X online
The paradox of Dąbrowski’s theory is that as a theory of
development it includes two levels in which there is little or
no development. Dąbrowski often referred to the ﬁrst level
as adevelopmental and to the second as a process of loosen-
ing of rigid mental structures. This loosening occurs “on a
single structural and emotional level”(Dąbrowski, 1964,p.
6)—which sounds almost like a negation of development.
The puzzle of level II is this: what develops here, and is
there a signiﬁcant emotional growth?
Level II is often treated with disdain—as if the psychologi-
cal life at this level were not worthy of exploration
(Piechowski, 2014b). Though level III presents a distinct proﬁle
and has been explored through case studies and other research
(Mróz, 2002,2009; Piechowski, 1990,1992,2009;Spaltro,
1991), the second level of Dąbrowski’stheoryisratheramor-
phous. In his posthumous book W poszukiwaniu zdrowia psy-
chicznego (In Search of Mental Health), Dąbrowski (1996)
described the plane of unilevel disintegration as follows:
Individuals belonging to this group demonstrate some capacity
for development, a certain developmental loosening, or even
breakdown, although of unclear direction. Developmental
direction is unclear because a distinct hierarchy of values is
lacking. Such individuals are characterized by ambivalences
and ambitendencies, contradictory drives and actions, change-
able moods with prevalence of negative elements:sadnessand
dejection, typically with cyclic shifts from one mood to another.
Their feelings alternate between inferiority and superiority,
between syntony and opposition. The lack of a distinct devel-
opmental direction resolves in frequent suicidal tendencies and
grave psychological disturbances. The inner psychic milieu of
such individuals evidences unilevel development. (p. 43, my
translation, italics added)
Despite its negative loading, this description allows for
“some capacity for development.”Because it is restricted
to one plane, what might be this capacity? The second
level’s central feature is the lack of a hierarchy of values.
In earlier writing, Dąbrowski emphasized “the absence of a
clear hierarchic factor that would appraise speciﬁc attitudes”
(1962, p. 83). An example of a hierarchic factor is the
dynamism of positive maladjustment. When one catches on
to the disparity between “what is”—injustice, dishonesty,
exploitation, denial of human rights—and “what ought to
be”—the universal values of justice, truth, fairness, and
respect for human rights—it creates a strong reaction.
Dąbrowski did not mean that everyone agrees on universal
values but only that people at advanced levels of develop-
ment do, people like Socrates, Abraham Lincoln, Mahatma
Gandhi, Albert Schweitzer, Father Kolbe, and Janusz
Korczak (Dąbrowski, 1970). One can add Eleanor
Roosevelt, Etty Hillesum, Dag Hammarskjoeld, Peace
Pilgrim, Dorothy Day, Abraham H. Maslow, Nelson
Mandela, Bishop Tutu, Muhammad Yunus, Malala
Yusafzai, and modern martyrs such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer,
Martin Luther King, Jr., Archbishop Janani Luwum, Bishop
Oscar Romero, Maria Skobtsova (Craig, 1985), and Fr. Jerzy
Popiełuszko, who as a witness to truth and human dignity
inspired Solidarity and whose murder accelerated the end of
communism in Poland (Ruane, 2004).
No such agreement on universal values exists at level II;
instead, values are viewed as changeable and relative, con-
forming to local beliefs and prejudices. On this plane, one
frequently hears the argument that ultimately the motivation
behind the ideals of moral exemplars is basically selﬁsh. The
cognitive and emotional myopia of unilevel mentality ﬂattens
out the multilevel mountain of higher ideals to a pancake.
Level II (unilevel disintegration), according to
Dąbrowski, has the following features:
Ambivalences—Mood ﬂuctuations, alternating feelings
of inferiority and superiority, approach and avoidance,
love and hate.
Ambitendencies—Changeable and contradictory courses
of action involve self-defeating behaviors and irrecon-
Second factor—The individual’s values, ideas, and
aspirations are governed by social opinion and the
need to conform; values and ideals are assumed always
to be relative.
Syntony—Positive emotions toward others can easily
turn to resentment or jealousy; a tendency to be overly
involved with others may turn to dependency or
enmeshment. Sensitivity and irritability exist side by
side. Identiﬁcation with others is more likely with the
image one has of a person than with the essence of that
person (Dąbrowski, 1970,1977).
Dąbrowski used the metaphor of a directing and disposing
center for what today is referred to as executive function.Itis
the individual’s will. Unilevel will is expressed in ambiten-
dencies. One could say that there are many wills at work and,
not infrequently, at cross purposes. Dąbrowski pointed to
adolescence as a period during which direction often changes.
Consequently, one can hear teenagers say that they feel like
being many selves or many “I”s(Piechowski,2014a).
Even though level II purports to be a level of develop-
ment through positive disintegration, none of its features
display anything to qualify as emotional and personal
growth. The picture we have so far is dominated by emo-
tional ﬂuctuations, inner contradictions, adaptation to soci-
etal norms, and lack of depth in relationships.
SOURCES OF MATERIAL TO FILL IN THE WHITE
AREAS OF LEVEL II
Three research studies will serve as sources of material to
reveal the panorama of genuine emotional development in
level II: A study of intellectual and ethical development of
88 M. M. PIECHOWSKI
college students (Perry, 1970, 1970/1998); a study of the
development of self, voice, and mind in women (Belenky,
Clinchy, Goldberger, & Tarule, 1986,1997); and a study of
self-actualization and morality in highly gifted adults (Ruf,
1998,2009). All three studies are based on numerous inter-
views and questionnaire material. Perry’s study is the oldest
but not outdated as evidenced by it being reprinted in 1998.
In addition, a review of subsequent research and theoretical
reﬁnements showed that Perry’s model continues to serve
well in assessment of how students view knowledge, in
career planning, in the teaching and learning environment,
and in other areas (Moore, 2002).
FROM BLACK AND WHITE THINKING TO
ACHIEVEMENT OF RELATIVISM OR THE
LIQUEFACTION OF A RIGID BELIEF STRUCTURE
Between 1954 and 1963, William G. Perry (1970) conducted
a study of intellectual and ethical development of college
students. Volunteers for the study were interviewed each
year; 80% were men attending Harvard and 20% were
women attending Radcliffe. A total of 84 4-year interviews
were obtained. The students came with a set of beliefs and a
worldview brought from home, church, and school, largely
unquestioned. At Harvard they met with a diverse body of
students and faculty, though, naturally, the diversity of 50
years ago was not what it is today. Perry (1970) cited, as an
indicator of diversity, that 72% of the students were from out
of state but does not mention racial and ethnical composition.
The entering students’thinking was characteristically
dualistic, black and white: their own worldview was right
and good and all others wrong and bad. Now at college
they encountered a confounding multiplicity of views,
values, and assumptions about what is true. They resisted
the uncertainty but eventually accommodated it by adopt-
ing the position that “anyone has a right to his opinion.”
Coursework in social sciences and humanities continued to
press them to learn that all knowledge and all values
depend on context and consequently are relative.
It is not easy to give up the unquestioned beliefs one grew
up with. Many students reported periods of conscious strug-
gle: “All this diversity has subjected my attitude to consider-
able doubt. It no longer stands on the ground it once stood on”
(Perry, 1970,p.175);“You constantly have times of doubt and
tension—a natural thing in existing and being open, trying to
understand the world around you”(Perry, 1970, p. 165). For
some students college was a “shattering experience”of “tear-
ing down old patterns”(Perry, 1970, p. 123).
They struggled to keep their earlier security of home-
town values against being at sea with mounting relativistic
uncertainties and against the apprehension about further
changes leading possibly to catastrophic disorganization.
The urge to move forward in opposition to the urge to
conserve is an example of unilevel conﬂict. It does not
involve a hierarchy of values.
Perry did not take ability into account. The struggle to
keep up with heavy load of homework was exacerbated by
pressure to revamp their thinking. They saw as the “brains”
those who embraced relativism easily.
Interestingly, Perry (1970) says that “the Position at
which a student was rated as a freshman was not predictive
of the position in his senior year”(p. 56). In other words,
some black and white dualists became genuine relativists,
and some espousing multiplicity and pluralism of views of
the unexamined sort (everyone’s opinion is as good as
anyone else’s) could still hold that position as seniors. A
minority acknowledged avoiding, denying, or ﬁghting
something. They felt uneasy or dissatisﬁed.
Those who were aware of their own evolution and
maturation toward relativism felt a sense of satisfaction.
The urge toward maturity, to take a responsible role in life,
came from within themselves. Many forces were moving
them forward: curiosity, striving for competence, the urge
to resolve incongruities and dissonances. The anomalies of
their experience were forcing them to expand their way of
seeing things. To open up to the new requires accommoda-
tion rather than assimilation (incorporating the new into
one’s old ready-made schemas that require no reorganiza-
tion of mental furniture). They desired authenticity in per-
sonal relationships and an identity.
Trying to describe the many inﬂuences on his mental
growth, one student said, “It’s like an amoeba which
extends a pseudopodium in one direction and follows the
whole thing”(Perry, 1970, p. 165). We can complete the
image knowing that moments later the amoeba extends a
pseudopodium in another direction and thus obtain an apt
image of ambitendencies. No focal direction is operating,
just one attractor or another. But lack of direction does not
mean that no growth is taking place.
Amidst all the contextual variety and uncertainty of
what is securely true, the relativist has to develop and
afﬁrm his own values, his own way of examining evidence
and evaluating the basis for different views.
Many questions face students in their college years:
Why do we exist? Can one have objective morality?
What is the basis for evaluating life choices? What are
my principles? What is my responsibility? Perry (1970)
cites the interview material extensively but includes hardly
any speciﬁcs to illuminate how the students wrestled with
these issues. He says that the goal of education for the
young men is to embrace relativism and at the same time
to develop an identity, choose a vocation, and develop one’s
own set of values in the relativistic context; in short, to
choose a way of life that one can commit oneself to. He
regards relativism as the triumph of human thought perhaps
equal to the development of language. Might one transcend
relativism? Perry considered the possibility that one could
RETHINKING DĄBROWSKI’S THEORY II 89
commit to faith in the Absolute and at the same time feel
morally obliged to respect other positions and abstain from
attempts to convert others to one’s own.
A minority of students resisted the intellectual paradigm
offered at Harvard. Some felt that they were drifting—an
epitome of unilevel process. Some waited for outside
events or fate to decide for them; others were slow to
grasp what was expected of them. Still others reacted
strongly against the intellectual efforts of relativism and
regressed into the unexamined pluralism of everyone’s
position being as good as anyone else’s. There were also
those who clung to the original authority familiar to them
and those who totally rejected any establishment. One
senior said that he gained by being at Harvard but without
losing anything. He assimilated the knowledge without
letting it change his way of thinking.
A new way of thinking may take a long time to develop
proﬁciency in it. It demands an emotional adjustment
amidst nonhierarchical searching and ﬂoundering: “I
haven’t had enough practice to think that way”(Perry,
1970, p. 180). Those who prefer accumulating information,
to have a ground to stand on, are more likely to be concrete
thinkers who ﬁnd exhausting and confusing the lack of
deﬁnitive answers in social sciences and humanities, the
endless ways of interpreting literature, the numberless con-
tributing causes coming into play in social phenomena.
They express their feelings like this (Perry, 1970):
“I just drift along …perhaps later I may ﬁnd out …that
I’m not happy in my drift”;“it might turn out when I get
older, I’ll ﬁnd …I’m living a hollow life.”(p. 190)
“I’ve never really identiﬁed myself deﬁnitely with any-
“So the best thing I have to do is just forget about deciding. …
I mean not to give up on any scheming or any basic set of
ideas …that’ll give myself, they’ll give me a direction. Just
give up completely, and when it comes down to individual
choices, make them on what I feel like doing emotionally at
the moment.”(p. 195)
“I’m very anxious to have some true beliefs. But then it goes
away, very quickly; I can’t trust my beliefs”(p. 196)—an
escape from complexity and yearning to be again cocooned
in a secure framework.
What lies ahead is either further growth—and some stu-
dents expressed a feeling of guilt for their own failure to
themselves—or an escape into sheer competence in the
hope that “through intensity of focus, all ambivalences
will be magically resolved”(Perry, 1970, p. 196). They
can also settle into a life of a family member and respon-
sible citizen that nevertheless, some years down the road,
may result in a feeling of having missed something. Such
was the case with the gifted men in Kerr and Cohn’s(2001)
longitudinal study. Or, they can ﬁnd fulﬁllment in the
application of their talents in what Ruf (2009) called career
self-actualization (as opposed to inner self-actualization).
Personal growth may or may not be resumed. It is a rare
seeker who embarks on the quest for inner transformation.
BECOMING AN INDIVIDUAL SELF
When a sense of self is undeveloped, personal growth takes
place toward gaining a sense of one’s individuality, coming
into one’s own as a person. Belenky et al.’s (1986, 1997)
study is a rich source for better understanding of the emo-
tional and cognitive growth process that is unilevel. When
women liberate themselves from prescribed gender roles,
they enter a phase of subjectivism—an uncritical reliance
on their own opinions and beliefs. Later a shift takes place
from subjectivism to acceptance of reasoning and objective
knowledge. Belenky and colleagues called embracing
objective knowledge separate knowing. Further, when
empathic knowing arises in relationship with the object of
inquiry, which could be a person or something else, they
called it connected knowing. Eventually, separate and con-
nected knowing become integrated. Not everyone gets
there, of course, and the cases of such integration that the
Belenky team cite all appear to be gifted women. Whether
it involves any inner transformation of the kind Dąbrowski
named multilevel is difﬁcult to know, but clearly the devel-
opmental changes they describe are essentially unilevel.
Building on Perry’s scheme, Belenky et al. (1986, 1997)
conducted extensive interviews with women from various
walks of life in order to trace the development of women’s
sense of self, voice, and mind. Of the 135 women in the study,
90 were students in six diverse academic institutions, and 45
were recruited from family agencies. About the latter the
authors said, “Since mothering—the traditional role for
women—has as its center the teaching of the next generation,
we were particularly interested in how maternal practice
might shape women’s thinking about human development
and the teaching relationship”(Belenky et al., 1986,p.13).
The study was cross-sectional and only in part long-
itudinal because some participants were interviewed at
different times during their college years. Women were
found functioning at various points of the developmental
spectrum derived from Perry’s schema.
In Rethinking I, the argument was that primary inte-
gration describes not a type of personality but a condition
of life shaped by social power structure and economics.
Nowhere is this more evident than in a male-dominated
society where women are subjugated in their gender-
stereotypic roles. In extreme cases they have no sense
of self and no voice of their own. Their identity derives
from what they do, not who they are. They feel “passive,
90 M. M. PIECHOWSKI
reactive, and dependent, they see authority as all-power-
ful”(Belenky et al., 1986, p. 27). They exist without self-
reﬂection, not unlike the young gifted adolescents who
have not yet thought about their own self (Piechowski,
2014a). It is not easy to tell from quoted statements what
is type and what is deﬁciency brought on by subjugation.
For example, a woman said, “I think my mind is really
structured. I have to have things all clearly laid out in
front of me”(Belenky et al., 1986, p. 42); a gifted girl
said, “I like to learn and I like to do things well. I am a
person who likes things to be clearly deﬁned—Iwantto
know what is expected of me in a given situation”
(Piechowski, 2014a, p. 223). Both statements sound char-
acteristic of the action-oriented type of person who
requires order and organization. Surface similarity of
the two examples does not tell us whether or not they
are at the same developmental level.
A female college freshman said, “Iamnice—polite to
people, that kind of thing. I like to be nice to people—to help
people”(Belenky et al., 1986, p. 46); a gifted male high school
student said that his feeling of pleasure came from knowing
“I’ve done something right, or that I’ve done something that
helps another person. I’ve helped this person when he or she is
better off when they leave than when they came”(Piechowski,
2014a, p. 214). One cannot assign level to the motivation to be
kind and helpful without knowing more about the people
following this principle.
At the lower end are women who, like Perry’s freshmen,
did not question the authority’s view of how the world
works. Neither did they question the subservient place
assigned to them. They did not have a sense of themselves
as individuals in their own right.
Those who trust external authority unquestioningly depend
on it for deﬁning who they are. They derive a sense of self
from their role, from what they do rather than from who they
are: “I’ve never had a personality. I’ve always been someone’s
daughter, someone’s wife, someone’s mother“(Belenky et al.,
1986, p. 82). One cannot help but notice the parallel with
giftedness deﬁned as doing, as producing gifted behaviors, as
opposed to giftedness as an attribute of the person, with right
to self-determination (Grant & Piechowski, 1999; Subotnik,
Olszewski-Kubilius, & Worrell, 2011).
For Perry’s Harvard boys the disintegrative push came
from their encounter with diverse points of view. Dualism
had to loosen up and give way to acceptance of multiplicity
of perspectives. For the Belenky team’s women, the disin-
tegrative push came from ﬁssures in the authority’s facade.
A crisis erupts when authority is exposed as wrong,
deceiving, or physically and sexually abusive. This can
happen in the context of family, church, or of the whole
nation as it did during the Vietnam War. Feeling betrayed,
people reject the authority that has failed them. They begin
to look for self-knowledge and self-deﬁnition in people like
themselves and eventually in themselves.
The ﬁrst step is to move from passively accepting what the
authority dictates and replace it with trust in the thoughts and
feelings of people one is close to; “you do just what everyone
does”(Belenky et al., 1986,p.38).Thenitbecomespossible
to trust one’s own thoughts and feelings. The next step is the
quest for self. In a radical shift, a person moves away from
dependence on authority ﬁgures and begins to listen to her
inner voice. But the voice is undeveloped, and whatever
comes from the “gut”is taken uncritically. The voice cannot
be yet said to represent the true self. If emotional growth leads
no further than the person’s gut feeling, it will be swayed by
moods, opinions, chance experiences, those Dąbrowskian
ambivalences and ambitendencies. One of the women in the
study described how she ceased to obey the whims of autho-
rities and stopped thinking of herself as dumb and ignorant:
I can only know with my gut. I’ve got it tuned to a point
where I think and feel all at the same time and I know what
is right. My gut is my best friend—the one thing in the
world that won’t let me down or lie to me or back away
from me. (Belenky et al., 1986, p. 53)
Other women expressed similar change in themselves, the
ﬁrst stirrings of their own inner knowing:
It’s like a certain feeling that you have inside you. It’s like
someone could say something to you and you have a
feeling. I don’t know if it’s like a jerk or something inside
you. It’s hard to explain. (Belenky et al., 1986, p. 69)
It is possible that the feeling of a jerk suggests what Gestalt
psychologists and Gendlin (1981) described as the internal
shift when a problem is solved—the feeling of things fall-
ing into place.
There’s a part of me that I didn’t even realize I had until
recently—instinct, intuition, whatever. It helps me and pro-
tects me. It’s perceptive and astute. I just listen to the inside
of me and I know what to do. (Belenky et al., 1986, p. 69)
Total rejection of any authority marks the phase of subjec-
tivism and afﬁrmation of personal truth. Continued emo-
tional growth is deﬁnitely possible. The process of growing
toward a sense of self is very tender and most likely
different from how identity forms in adolescence.
School and church, the principal agents of socialization
and trimming individuality, stress following the rules as a
model of good behavior. To break away from the trust in
rules is particularly difﬁcult if there is no guidance from
anyone. The quest for self is arduous:
I always thought there were rules and that if you followed the
rules, you’d be happy. And I never understood why I wasn’t.
I’d get to thinking, gee, I’m good, I follow the rules. I do
RETHINKING DĄBROWSKI’S THEORY II 91
everything they tell me to, and things don’t go right for me.
My life was a mess. I wrote to a priest that I was very fond of
and I asked him, “What do I do to make things right?”He
had no answers. This time it dawned on me that I was not
going to get the answers from anybody. I would have to ﬁnd
them myself. (Belenky et al., 1986, p. 61)
Fluctuations in the sense of self but also exhilaration and
optimism in the process of change are expressed in the
I’m only the person that I am at this moment. Tomorrow
I’m somebody different, and the day after that I’m some-
body different. …I’m always changing. Everything is
always changing. (Belenky et al., 1986, p. 83)
It’s hard to say who I am because I don’t really think about
more than tomorrow. In the future I’ll probably have a
better understanding, because now I simply don’t know. I
think it will really be a fun thing to ﬁnd out. Just do
everything until I ﬁnd out. (Belenky et al., 1986, p. 83)
Opening to novelty and change is expressed in imagery of
birth, rebirth, and childhood, a signiﬁcant step in personal
growth even though it is far from multilevel:
Right now I’m so busy being born, discovering who I am, that
I don’t know who I am. And I don’t know where I’m going.
And everything is going to be ﬁne. (Belenky et al., 1986, p. 82)
The person I see myself as now is just like an infant. I see
myself as beginning. Whoever I can become, that’s a wide-
open possibility. (Belenky et al., 1986, p. 82)
I actually think that the person I am now is only about three to
four years old with all these new experiences. I always was
kind of led, told what to do. Never really thought much about
myself. Now I feel like I’m learning all over again. (Belenky
et al., 1986,p.82)
Emotional growth within the unilevel universe of level II
calls for further exploration. The above examples show that
not all material has to be generated from the framework of
Dąbrowski’s theory. Beyond Belenky et al. (1986) there no
doubt exists research literature that can be explored to ﬂesh
out some of his concepts in a mosaic of living color.
HIGHLY GIFTED NONSEARCHERS OF LEVEL II:
GOOD LIVES, STABLE LIVES
For her research on highly gifted adults, Deborah Ruf
assessed the Dąbrowski level of emotional development on
the basis of descriptive criteria in the existing literature (Ruf,
1998,2009). To decide whether a subject was at the level of
transformative process, she relied also on descriptors of self-
actualization (Maslow, 1970). With this in mind she devel-
oped three categories: searchers, neutral, and nonsearchers.
Those who were “still actively deciding who they are and
what they want to be …[they] examine and re-examine
themselves”(Ruf, 2009, p. 276) are the searchers. They
show evidence of “emotional and ideological struggles”;
that is, positive disintegration. Nonsearchers are the opposite,
their identity decided early. They neither examine nor search
their inner selves. They may be quite successful in their
careers; that is, outwardly realizing their potential, or only
partially, and yet be content with their lives. The neutral
category is more elusive: “Someone who is neither clearly a
Searcher or a Nonsearcher”(Ruf, 2009, p. 276). Nearly half
(17 out of 41) of Ruf’s subjects were assigned the neutral
category. “Nonsearchers make statements that indicate their
need to be in control of their environments and particularly
themselves. Neutral people do not clearly indicate as strong a
need for self control as Nonsearchers”(Ruf, 1998, p. 60).
Ruf (1998) culled together the following criteria for level II
Stereotypical Roles: Highly inﬂuenced by others, values
introjected from parents, church, etc., relativistic, situa-
tional values, conﬂicted feelings, contradictory actions,
desire for acceptance, feelings of inadequacy when com-
pared with others, lack of a hierarchy of values. (p. 59)
Let us note at the outset that there was not much evidence of
“relativistic, situational values,”“contradictory actions,”or
“lack of a hierarchy of values.”Although the values of a
good family life, the care and joy of parenting, fulﬁllment in
a career, and helping others may be regarded as conven-
tional, they are still essential components of a life well lived.
There were 19 highly gifted subjects assessed at level II,
with IQs from 137 to 167. Half of them (10 out of 19)
suffered signiﬁcant abuse, whether physical, sexual, or
emotional. Their early home environments varied from
emotionally cold and harsh or neglectful to caring and
loving. Often the father was an alcoholic. The overriding
issue for most of the subjects was the fact that their family,
and more often the school, were not aware of their extre-
mely high intelligence. Rather than supportive they could
be hostile. Although the individuals growing up knew they
were different, the nature of the difference was not always
clear to them. They did not ﬁt in, and in the end many
realized that they would never ﬁt in and that they did not
need to ﬁt in. By this they overcame the tyranny of the
second factor, one of the deﬁning motivators in level II, that
makes people seek approval and acceptance, to live accord-
ing to others’expectations.
Ruf’s(1998) overview of her ﬁndings is worth reprodu-
Level II people tend to function well in society. They
understand and generally abide by the rules, stated and
unstated. They understand the culture of their society and
92 M. M. PIECHOWSKI
try to ﬁt in and show pride and pleasure when they do.
Positive feedback that they have succeeded to meet or
exceed society’s norms is often important and encouraging
[to them]. (p. 60)
Some of the subjects who did not receive sufﬁcient emo-
tional support tried ﬁrst, both morally and emotionally, to
please others and receive positive emotional feedback.
Such a need was perhaps the impetus for high career
success in a number of the subjects. As highly and pro-
foundly gifted people, these subjects can almost always do
whatever needed to be done better than most of the people
they know. Many …are outwardly successful. They
achieved self-actualization in their careers without achiev-
ing it inside themselves. (p. 60)
People who operate at the level of stereotypical roles
demonstrated that they were highly inﬂuenced by others.
“Others”includes not only their parents and church but
societal rules, laws, and possible rewards. They tend to
need and be motivated by positive feedback from others
about their actions and accomplishments more than people
at higher emotionally developed levels. (p. 61)
Ruf’s highly gifted subjects demonstrate the great variety
and complexity of lives within the universe of level II. In
fact, she described two kinds of nonsearchers (Ruf, 2009).
Let us call them A and B. Nonsearchers A are trying hard
to be a good person, they are hard-working, responsible,
and nice: “This type of Nonsearchers often discovered
fairly early in life how to formulate and meet goals, and
once successful at meeting those goals stayed with the
original plan”(Ruf, 2009, p. 278). Nonsearchers B
accepted the life as it was but “always had someone, or
some circumstances, to blame for their own shortcomings
or underachievement.”They came across as angry, cynical,
and negative and consequently resistant to changing them-
selves: “People who hold on ﬁrmly to resentments and their
own way of viewing life, whether it makes them happy or
not, are highly resistant to positive disintegration.”
Sometimes the subjects said contradictory things about
their childhood that Ruf interpreted as lack of clear percep-
tion of reality. The need to please others and ﬁnd accep-
tance was evident in only a few. A strong work ethic and a
will to succeed characterize many of these highly gifted
individuals. Those with particularly damaging childhoods
had difﬁculty overcoming the emotional wounds of not
being wanted, of being denied their potential, and being
bullied. Childhoods lacking in love have a lasting effect. It
is a rare person who can overcome it (Anthony, 1987;
Higgins, 1994). There were some in Ruf’s study who
believed in their own power to succeed in life and were
able to overcome their dipsomania.
Ruf stressed that a number of her nonsearchers
emphasized having self-control and control over their
lives. Because of this, some appeared inﬂexible. She
interpreted the need for self-control as a way of holding
tight to the status quo, as a lack of openness to changing
themselves, which would explain why they did not seek
therapy. (This kind of self-control is different from the
dynamism of self-control at Dąbrowski’slevelIVthat
keeps in check the lower self to enact the principles of
the higher self.) Though assessed to be at level II, Ruf’s
subjects did seek answers and found them in religion, or
by rejecting religion, or in their own power to reason
things out. One woman said that she developed personal
strength because she had no positive support in her
family. This is an enormously signiﬁcant growth for her
as a person. This is another instance when we ﬁnd emo-
tional growth within the conﬁnes of level II, a growth
that is more than, in Dąbrowski’s description, just loos-
ening of rigid structures and being buffeted by ambiten-
dencies and ambivalences.
Their main tasks were to own their giftedness and to
adapt to the demands of career and, in most cases, raising a
family. Ruf (1998) summarized as follows:
The career self-actualizers have a number of identiﬁable
characteristics. They have products and accomplishments,
awards, and busy schedules. …They tend to ﬁnd satisfaction
and happiness in their accomplishments and tend to recog-
nize their worth as achievers and doers. In fact, a large
number of subjects at this level…lead very stable lives. So
even without inner transformation, these are people who
appear to “live up to their potential.”(pp. 123–124)
The concept of level II ﬁts well with the case studies of
highly gifted adults and also with the Perry inspired study
of women’s emotional development. The concept of unilevel
disintegration, however, cannot be applied wholly to level II
because the majority of lives identiﬁed within this level are
more or less stable. Even Dąbrowski’s concept of partial
integration seems to have limited application because it
implies that there is some “disintegration”going on or that
the person is chronically on the brink of one. This makes
little sense. Instead, we should conclude that the lives of
most people follow the stages of lifespan development and
that some may be so unreﬂective that they match level I and
others are somewhat more reﬂective and match level II.
1. The universe of level II is vast, not all ﬂat, with
considerable room for personal growth. It is not
amorphous and not necessarily lacking in direction
and reﬂection. Dipping into three in-depth studies of
cognitive development, achievement of the sense of
RETHINKING DĄBROWSKI’S THEORY II 93
self, and career self-actualization is just a beginning
in the exploration of this vast (unilevel) universe.
2. The ﬁrst two studies, addressing intellectual and self-
development, lay bare the dynamic features of a
unilevel process (ambivalences, ambitendencies).
They show the broadening of perspective, changes
in worldview, and rejection of social roles that cor-
responds to Dąbrowski’s idea of loosening rigid men-
tal and emotional equipment. The third study
identiﬁes career self-actualization that largely ﬁts
3. In the theory, levels I, II, and III address three types
of development. The ﬁrst is rather conﬁned to an
unreﬂective life following the stages from youth to
old age. The second has room for ﬂuctuation, ﬂoun-
dering, but also for an expansion of thinking and
growth of the self. The third is one of awakening to
higher realities and ideals and reaching for them.
This type of development continues through levels
IV and V. To think of types of development instead of
levels frees us from the unavoidable automatic sug-
gestion of stages, or rungs on a ladder, that the
numbering and stacking of the ﬁve levels does.
4. Growth of the self is a huge subject. Here we speak of it
in general terms but without precision. We are only
making a distinction about the sense of self that is uni-
level and a sense of self that involves the differentiation
of the higher and the lower in oneself, which is the
hallmark of self on the journey toward an authentic self.
5. One of the deﬁning features of level II is suscept-
ibility to social convention and opinion (the so-called
second factor). Unilevel growth of the self, which is
at once cognitive and emotional, can defy convention
by rejecting prescribed social roles, such as of a
dutiful daughter, wife, or mother. In this case, perso-
nal growth and change breaks out of the control of
social convention and opinion.
6. The disintegration part of unilevel development is
when people are falling apart, become clinical cases,
and are unable to transcend their difﬁculties by move-
ment to a higher level. In his description, Dąbrowski
emphasized “prevalence of negative elements”
(Dąbrowski, 1996, p. 43). Though this makes sense
in the context of psychopathology, it does not apply to
the development portrayed by the three studies.
7. The concept of unilevel disintegration can represent
level II only in part because evidence shows that the
majority of lives that belong here are rather stable.
Unilevel churning, turmoil, and collapse—the disinte-
gration piece—is the clinical part of the picture that deals
with psychosomatic and psychoneurotic disorders,
addictions, psychoses, and so forth (Dąbrowski, 1972).
8. Traumatic life events within the conﬁnesoflevelImay
lead to a unilevel disintegration but without any chance
for further growth. This is the negative disintegration,
oftenreferredtobyDąbrowski, where pathological con-
ditions or suicide appear to be the only possibility
9. Can the emotional growth revealed in these studies be
a precursor to multilevel development? One can sup-
pose that the intellectual breakthrough of achieving
broad relativistic thinking, that has room for diverse
worldviews, may presage the next step. Similarly,
might the breaking out of prescribed social roles be a
preparatory step? However, the next step—multilevel
development—cannot be set in motion without a
strong developmental potential (Piechowski, 2014b).
This effort has beneﬁted greatly from comments by R. Frank
Falk, Barry Grant, Tana Krueger, and two unnamed reviewers.
1. To assess Kohlberg-type moral development, Ruf used the
Deﬁning Issues Test (Rest, 1986). All nonsearchers and the
majority of neutrals scored at the preconventional and con-
ventional Kohlberg stages of moral reasoning and at
Dąbrowski levels I and II. For the whole study of 41 subjects,
whose scores extended through all ﬁve levels, the correlation
between scores on the Deﬁning Issues Test and Dąbrowski
level was 0.85.
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Michael M. Piechowski is a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Educational Advancement and the Yunasa summer
camp for highly gifted youth. He is the author of Mellow Out, They Say. If I Only Could: Intensities and Sensitivities
of the Young and Bright and coeditor with Susan Daniels of Living With Intensity. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
RETHINKING DĄBROWSKI’S THEORY II 95